This book is part of the Heywood Hounds Cozy Mysteries and was written especially for the Twelve Days of Christmas Cozy Mystery Collection.
Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer has gone missing. Can a woman and her talking dog sniff him out?
When Rudolph goes missing days before the Heywood Christmas Festival, Gina Dunner and her talking dog, Daisy, put their noses to the ground to find him.
As the investigation progresses, they not only find themselves saddled with a litter of puppies, but embroiled in the mystery of where the mother has gone.
Will Gina and Daisy be able to return the puppies to their mother and find Rudolph in time to save the Christmas Festival?
Copyright 2023 Westward Publishing / Carly Fall, LLC
All Rights Reserved.
Receiving a phone call in the early morning hours before daybreak never meant good news. I peeled open one eye and stared at the vibrating device sitting on my nightstand, my heart thundering. I didn’t want to answer. No news was good news, right? Especially when I was curled up in bed enjoying the last minutes of beautiful sleep before beginning my day, which was going to be a busy, cold one. With just a week before Christmas, I still had some shopping and baking to do, and living up in the mountains of Arizona, we’d received another foot of snow yesterday. Shoveling would be in order.
Yet, with an elderly father and my kid coming home from college, not to mention a brother who made questionable choices and often ended up in jail, I reluctantly picked up the phone.
“Hello?” I asked, shutting my eyes and preparing for the worst.
“Yes?” I didn’t recognize the voice and my anxiety skyrocketed as the worst crossed my mind. Hospital worker? Police? Morgue?
“It’s Charlie Tupper.”
Thank goodness. I sighed with relief. Only a farmer who lived on the other side of town.
If he was calling me, I was hopeful no one in my family was dead. I sat up as my dog, Daisy, who laid beside me, protested with a grunt.
“What’s going on, Charlie?” I asked.
“Well, I kept hearing weird sounds coming from my barn this morning and finally found the source. It’s a couple of puppies.”
I then understood why he was calling the local dog rescuer—namely, me¾before sunup. “Any sign of the mother?”
“None,” he said. “And all of my dogs are fixed, so they definitely aren’t mine.”
Bless him. If more people fixed their canines, we wouldn’t have an overpopulation. “How old are the puppies?” I asked.
“That I don’t know,” Charlie said. “They’re cute as heck though. Little brown, white and black things. They are cold, and I put down some wet food, which they ate up. But I can’t keep them, Gina.”
I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “Okay. Let me get some coffee and I’ll be over to take them.”
After hanging up, I stroked Daisy’s head. I’d rescued her about a year ago and decided to keep her. A hound / Jack Russell Terrier mix, she and I shared a special bond. Namely, I could hear her speaking to me.
“What’s going on?” she asked sleepily.
“I have to go rescue some puppies.”
Her eyes flew open and she sat up. “Puppies? As in little, annoying dogs?”
With a snicker, I threw back my covers and shoved my feet into a pair of slippers. “Yes.”
“Gina!” she whined. “I hate puppies!”
“How in the world can you hate puppies?” I asked, placing my hands on my hips, very disappointed in my talking canine. “Nobody hates puppies!”
“They pee everywhere, they whine all the time, and they’re always hungry. They are sooo annoying.”
“You were a puppy once,” I reminded her as I slipped on my robe and grabbed my glasses from the nightstand.
“But I wasn’t like a regular puppy,” she sniffed. “I’ve always been a good dog.”
“I don’t know about that,” I muttered.
“What does that mean?”
“I can think of a few times you weren’t exactly a good dog, Daisy. Like the time you ripped up the stuffed toy, then ate the insides and threw it up. Or the time I unhooked your leash after the walk and you took off.”
“There was a rabbit!” she exclaimed. “I couldn’t help myself!”
“My point is that not every dog is perfect.”
“Most humans aren’t either,” she grumbled.
“I don’t disagree.” As a dog rescuer, I’d seen the worst humans could do. That probably had something to do with my general dislike of people.
After I stepped over two empty dog beds, I hurried down the hall to the kitchen where I found my other rescue, Banshee, waiting by the feeding bowls. The little white terrier had some food issues—mainly, she liked to eat and was always waiting for the next meal.
“Good morning, Banshee,” I said as I prepared the coffee pot. “I’ll feed you in a minute, but I wanted to let you know we have some puppies coming to live with us, okay?”
Silence. I could never hear any other dogs speaking, except for Daisy, even though I tried to communicate with them on a regular basis. Like I mentioned, my connection with Daisy was strong and unique.
With a shiver, I cranked up the heat. When my coffee was brewed, I slurped it down while running a brush through my blonde hair. Studying my reflection in the mirror, I ran my hand over my cheek and forehead, then decided that I looked pretty good for my mid-forties. If only my eyesight wasn’t so bad.
I grabbed another cup of coffee, then got dressed. Jeans, a sweatshirt, and my boots along with my parka, gloves and hat should keep me warm enough.
“Do you want to go out before I leave?” I asked Daisy, who was still curled up on the bed.
“And leave this heated blanket?” she asked. “Are you out of your mind? It’s cold outside!”
“Don’t pee in the house,” I said, wishing I could crawl back into bed.
When I stepped out into the dark morning, the cold hit me like a fist to the face, and I almost turned around. But… the puppies. They’d been in a barn all night. If they survived that, I could suffer a couple of hours with the knowledge that I’d soon be back in my warm house.
After turning on the car, I scraped the ice off the windshield, shoveled my driveway, then grabbed a couple of small dog carriers from the garage and threw them in the back seat. I’d meant to organize the space so I could fit my car in there over the winter, but I’d never gotten around to it. Slowly, I began my trek over to the Tupper farm.
The roads were a little snowy and definitely icy. Thankfully, the plow drove by, so everything should be clear on my way home.
Having lived in Heywood my whole life, I never tired of the little town, and I smiled as I drove down Comfort Road. Each of the stores to my right was decorated with miscellaneous festive decorations. Little white lights were strung from lamppost to lamppost while Christmas carols played through hidden speakers. Heywood had its faults, but celebrating Christmas wasn’t one of them. With the plows cleaning up the roads from yesterday’s snowfall, I imagined the town would be buzzing with tourists later in the afternoon. Every year we hosted the Heywood Christmas Festival at the Community Center, which was a really fun event. Santa and Mrs. Claus were in attendance and sometimes he brought his reindeer. Last year, Mrs. Claus had been murdered and we’d almost had to cancel the event, but I hated thinking about that unfortunate incident.
Once I was past Heywood proper, darkness swallowed me and I almost missed the turn off. As I tapped the break, my car began to fishtail. I belted out a curse while I white-knuckled the steering wheel and did my best to avoid the ditch.
Thankfully, I managed to right the car. Once I saw the Tupper household’s light in the distance, I sighed with relief. I’d made it to my destination!
I parked in front of the yellow home with the wraparound porch and noticed the lights blazing in the barn to the left of the house. After shutting off the engine, I took a deep breath and opened the car door.
“Holy heck is it cold,” I whispered as I hurried through the snow toward the barn.
I glanced up to see Charlie Tupper waving at me from the open door.
“H-hey,” I said, my teeth now chattering. I should’ve put on another layer of clothing.
“How are you this fine morning?” Charlie asked. Standing over six feet tall with a gray beard, he reminded me a bit of Santa.
“Cold,” I muttered. “Where are the puppies?”
Charlie smiled and waved me deeper inside the barn. As we strode through the stalls, I noted miniature goats and miniature cows. So cute! To my shock, I also found deer sharing a few of the stalls. If I wasn’t freezing to death and wanting to get back home, I’d ask Charlie about them.
At the last stall, Charlie opened the door. There in the corner laid the brown, black and white puppies snuggled up on a pile of hay.
Except there weren’t a “couple” as Charlie had said.
“You haven’t seen the mom?” I asked, noting Charlie had brought in a few blankets for them. They all seemed to be sleeping soundly.
“Nope,” he said. “Lots of predators out this way, Gina. If she left in the snow to go find something to eat… well, I hope nothing happened to her.”
I tried to count the snuggled bodies, but where one ended another began. They were intertwined and lying on top of each other for warmth. “You don’t know how long they’ve been here?” I asked.
“I don’t. This stall isn’t used because the gate’s broken. They’ve been darn quiet, though. I didn’t hear them until this morning.”
As I glanced outside, I decided that the word “morning” shouldn’t be used until the sun was in the sky.
I stared at the puppies again and shook my head. “There’s more than a couple there, Charlie.”
“Did I say a couple?” he asked, his brow furrowing.
Had he truly misspoken, or just flat out lied?
“Yes.” I sighed and rubbed my forehead, wondering just how many puppies there would be when I untangled them all. “Let me get the dog crates.”
I trekked through the snow to my car, pulled the carriers from the back seat, and returned to the barn. As I began pulling the puppies apart and setting them in the crates, they whimpered and cried. I figured they were four to six weeks old. Once I’d collected all of them, I cursed under my breath. Eleven puppies.
How in the world was I going to raise eleven puppies?
“Let me get the car warmed up before I drive them back to my house,” I said.
As I walked to the car again, I tried to figure out the logistics of how I was going to raise eleven puppies who should be with their mother. I imagined there’d be some bottle feeding involved. My son, Jacob, was going to be surprised about his new duty when he arrived home from college. I’d most certainly need his help.
I squinted into the darkness for any sign of mom. If I could collect her as well, it would not only make my job easier, but I’d feel better knowing she was in a safe place. I truly hoped nothing had happened to her.
Instead of trudging back to the barn, I drove over and parked just outside the main door. I left the engine running, flipped the heat on high, then hurried down to Charlie. We each picked up a carrier and returned to my car.
“Thanks a lot for coming out, Gina,” he said after we’d situated them in the back seat.
“You’re welcome. Thanks for calling.”
“I can’t take care of the babies,” he said. “I’ve got my own animals, but also the deer. They’ll be here until after Christmas.”
I heard whining from the vehicle, so I didn’t question him further. However, I did wonder why he had a dozen or so deer. “I better go,” I said.
“You still got the website up and running?” Charlie asked.
“I’ll get on there and make a donation as soon as I’m done mucking the stalls.”
“Thanks, Charlie,” I said, smiling. “That will help a lot.”
“And I’ll keep an eye out for mom,” he said. “If I find her, I’ll give you a call.”
“That would be great,” I said. “She needs to be somewhere warm and safe, too.”
“And those babies need their mother,” he said, pointing at my car. “I’ll see you later.”
I slipped into the front seat and made my way out to Route 9, driving even slower than I had come in as I glanced around, hoping the mother would make an appearance. I finally pulled out onto the highway and headed home.
One thing was for certain: If Daisy wasn’t happy with the idea of a “couple” puppies, she was going to be out of her mind with eleven.
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